Portrait of contemporary dancer Iztok Kovač by Borut Peterlin
IMAGINATIVE portraits of Slovenian artists, performers, and others making their mark on the nation’s cultural life are the focus of a new exhibition in London.
“Emerging Slovenia,” a collection of 38 portraits by photojournalist Borut Peterlin, opened this week at the Host Gallery in central London’s Clerkenwell neighborhood.
First published in the Slovene-language magazine Mladina, the portraits often juxtapose incongruous elements that play off their subjects’ public images. In one, jazz festival founder Marijan Dović saws a barbed wire fence using the bow of a violin. (Or is he playing the fence?) Another (above) depicts contemporary dancer Iztok Kovač falling down a flight of stairs.
Peterlin says he aims for “this kind of twist in the picture, to have visual elements that are fighting between each other. I say, ‘Let’s make it unpredictable, something that’s fun to see not only in the week it’s made, but that will be interesting years later.’”
Taken together, the portraits form a lively introduction to the creative life of Slovenia today.
The Host Gallery considers Peterlin’s work “an interesting and unusual way of presenting a country through its artists,” says the gallery’s Michael Regnier.
“We’re quite a new, young gallery, so we’ve done eclectic shows, and a young photographer from Slovenia showing portraits of his compatriots fits in perfectly,” he says. And the timing was right: The Host was enthusiastic about highlighting Slovenia as it prepares to take on the presidency of the European Union in January.
Two years ago, Jon Levy, of the magazine foto8, and Adrian Evans, of the agency Panos, founded the gallery to provide a showcase for work that might not otherwise find its audience. Its early exhibitions included Pep Bonet’s “POSITHIV+,” a multi-country, multi-year project on HIV/AIDS.
“The outlets for classic photojournalism are becoming smaller and smaller,” Regnier says. “The gallery is not dependent on the whims of the advertising industry. It offers a much more pure, much more direct way of displaying the work.”
It will also offer wider exposure for the work of Peterlin, who has covered many of the country’s biggest stories for Mladina. During the last year, he has captured gripping photos of members of a Roma family who were evicted from their home in eastern Slovenia.
Peterlin, who is also the magazine’s photo editor, says his experience with photojournalism informs the portraits, and vice-versa. “The aesthetic that I learn in photojournalism is applied here, and the portrait aesthetic appears in the photojournalism, as in the pictures I took of deaf children.”
Peterlin chooses the portraits’ subjects in cooperation with other editors of Mladina, but the approach to each shot is purely his own.
“I want to think of a way to turn the situation upside down,” he says. In preparing to photograph Kovač, perhaps best known for dancing on a chimney in the 1997 film Vrtoglavi Ptič (Dizzy Bird), Peterlin says he told his subject: “Ok, you are defying gravity, but I would like to photograph you falling in your own apartment.”
The choices can also be impulsive, as when he photographed Slovenian writer Nejc Gazvoda underwater. “With Nejc, it wasn’t really rational,” he says. “It was warm that day, so I said, ‘Let’s shoot it in the pool.’”
Despite their artistic and inspired nature, the portraits are as deadline-driven as any news photo would be. “I have a day or two to think about it and an hour to do it. It’s really stressful. But the stress helps me with focus,” Peterlin says.
“I have to minimize all the doubts. I have to be very clear with what to do,” he says. “I really learn how to exclude the thoughts that are not productive. I just have to concentrate on the subject and act fast.”
“I say, ‘Let’s do a good picture in an hour, and then run to the next press conference.’”
For those who can’t make it to London, the portraits selected for the Host exhibition are here. The rest of the portraits in the Mladina series are here. (In the latter gallery, move your cursor over each photo for nuggets about the subject and the photographer’s inspiration for the shot.)
“Emerging Slovenia” will be at the Host Gallery (1 Honduras Street, near the Barbican Tube station) through November 3.